Brian Ortega confident he’s among UFC's featherweight elite despite championship losses

Brian Ortega has lost two of his last three, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. First, the losses came 32 months apart and they were to Max Holloway and Alexander Volkanovski, the greatest featherweights in UFC history.

Ortega is 15-0 other than that, with dominant wins over the likes of Chan Sung Jung, Frankie Edgar, Cub Swanson and Renato Moicano, on his ledger.

But in the 10 months since he lost to Volkanovski via five-round decision in a bid for the featherweight title on Sept. 25, 2021, in the main event of UFC 266 in Las Vegas, Ortega has heard repeatedly how it’s going to be difficult for him to get another title shot any time soon.

He’ll fight Yair Rodriguez on Saturday on Long Island in the main event of UFC on ABC 3. Rodriguez has told reporters the UFC has told him he’ll get a title shot with a win.

Ortega has gotten no such assurances, but he’s not sweating it. He is adamant that Saturday’s bout is far from a do-or-die situation.

“It’s never do-or-die for me, and no matter what happens, I’ll still be in the mix,” Ortega said. “I’m a competitor and as a competitor and a human being, I want to win. But if I lose, I lose to No. 3. What would that do? Put me at No. 4 or No. 5 maybe? I’m still in the Top 10 for sure, probably still in the Top 5. I’m not far away no matter what.”

Ortega also knows it matters who one lost to, and how. Holloway stopped him after the fourth round at UFC 231 in Toronto on Dec. 8, 2018, in what may have been the best performance of Holloway’s legendary career.

He then lost to Volkanovski last year, but had the champion in a tight guillotine and was perhaps seconds away from winning the title.

“I lost to Max when he was at his absolute peak and I lost to [Volkanovski] when he’s at his peak now,” Ortega said. “I look at myself and I believe I showed I have what it takes to be a champion. I didn’t get it done when I had the chance, and I get that, but if you look at what I have done I don’t think you can honestly say I haven’t proven I am good enough to be the champion in this division.

“I lost to two champions who were both in their primes. The first one, there were things that happened [with his former team] that were out of my control. The second one, I had [Volkanovski] right there and he somehow escaped my choke. The world knows, I think, that I’m right there.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 25: Brian Ortega enters the Octagon in his UFC featherweight championship fight during the UFC 266 event on September 25, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Brian Ortega has just two losses on his record, and they were both to two of the best featherweights the UFC has seen. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

The featherweight division is arguably the UFC’s strongest and Ortega knows that a win over Rodriguez would be a significant notch on the belt.

As a fellow competitor, he appreciates the way Rodriguez approaches the game. Rodriguez is all about the violence and Ortega lauded him for that.

“He’s always looking for a finish and I appreciate people who fight that style,” Ortega said. “There are a lot of fighters out there today, they’re just out there looking to score points. Not this guy. This man is trying to knock your head off, and I appreciate that. And it’s better for me. Styles make fights and I think this is a good style for me.”

Ortega is one of the UFC’s more marketable fighters, because he not only has a similarly entertaining fighting style to Rodriguez, he has the look to go with it. He was featured in an ad campaign with his former coach, James Luhrsen, with whom he has since had a serious split, in a Modelo Beer commercial.

With the fight being on network television for free on ABC, he’ll be exposed to a wider potential audience than on ESPN and he believes that could make a difference for him in his career.

It could help him land more endorsements and commercial spots, but it could also serve as a reminder that despite those two losses, Ortega remains elite among the elite.

“There is a lot of potential for me with this [being on ABC],” Ortega said. “There are so many eyes that are going to be able to watch and I’m really excited. It makes me happy because it’s an avenue to open more doors for me.”

He just needs to go out and be Brian Ortega and he’ll be fine. He’s been dominant in his UFC career and even if at the time he’s considered third best among himself, Holloway and Volkanovski, there was a time in the NFL not too long ago that Peyton Manning might have been regarded as third-best among himself, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

When you’re in that kind of company, it’s no shame to be No. 3.